The Past Never Dies

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters aren't mine, the story is, and this is filled with friendship and sibling cuteness! I was inspired to write this fic after watching Grave of the Fireflies (which is an absolutely heartwrenching, beautiful movie that must be watched), so it must get some credit. Also, since I began writing the flashbacks shortly before the attack on London, I wish to express my heartfelt condolences to everyone involved in that horrible tragedy.

The night was gray and overcast. Plump rainclouds filled the sky, threatening to unleash their treasures upon the city of Domino. Off in the distance, thunder boomed and lightning flashed soon after. But that was the least of Alister Mackenzie's worries. It could pour rain until he was completely soaked to the skin and he would not care at all.

There was so much running, screaming, and shouting. . . . Smoke and blood were everywhere. . . . Two buses filled with civilians had mysteriously crashed into each other. There were only a few survivors, but a gentle, red-haired, Scottish woman who was the loving mother of two adorable boys was not among them. Nothing could bring her back now, not even the desperate, pleading cries of "Momma!"

The wails echoed piteously up and down the streets. No one stopped to help the two frantic children. They knew that the boys' mother had not survived, and they all had their own problems. The boys would just have to deal with the reality of what war had caused. They were on their own now.

He stared down at a brunette teenager, watching him go limp. His gray eyes widened in horror as he leaned back, trembling in shock and disbelief. His left hand, which he had used to investigate a cut on the side of the boy's head, was now dripping with blood. He pulled it away slowly, barely noticing the substance that was oozing from between his fingers.

"Valon," he choked out pitifully. His throat constricted as dizziness overwhelmed him. I can't lose him! I can't lose another brother. . . . Please, God, don't take him. . . . He felt as though he was a child once again, reliving the horrors of the war he had suffered through. He had tried many times to push the memories back in the recesses of his mind, but they always came forth again. Now it was worse than ever, and much more gripping.

He watched as Holly vanished into the brush where her brother's regiment was hiding. After giving them the crucial information, she turned to run back to where he was waiting. Instead, machine-gun fire erupted all around, the terrible sound echoing off the trees and frightening the birds. He dodged a stray bullet, then dared to look into the ravine again, screaming his friend's name. He could see her laying in a bed of leaves, motionless and profusely bleeding. She was dead.

Her brother and the other soldiers immediately fired back at the enemy, but even when they had been beaten back, there was no feel of victory. He ran down the hill to where the regiment and Holly were, his heart wrenching as he saw her brother kneeling down beside her and trying to see if there was any hope of saving her life. But there was none. She had died while delivering information that would save many other lives, but would they recognize her sacrifice? Would anyone recognize it? He clenched his fists.

The redhead's mind was whirling with the recollections that were reemerging. Everything seemed to be a blank and he could not think of what he needed to do. Valon's blood was all over his hands and seeping from the wounds inflicted in the Australian's flesh. Struggling to grasp control of his common sense, Alister tore off part of his shirt and pressed it against the bullet wound in Valon's chest. He knew in his mind that his friend was unconscious, but he spoke to him anyway.

"Don't go," he pleaded, sounding very unlike his normal, cold self. He was having a breakdown, being faced once again with the very imminent possibility of a loved one's death. He could not bear the thought of it happening again, not after it had happened more than once so many years before. "Don't go, Valon. . . ." His voice rose as he grew more and more frantic. Before he knew it, he was screaming Miruko's name instead of Valon's. In his mind, he was kneeling in front of the place where the tank had exploded. He was picking up Miruko's action figure and crying out for his lost brother. "MIRUKO! MIRUKO, COME BACK! COME BACK. . . ."

The explosion threw him several yards away, deafening him with its murderous cacophony. He lay dazed for several moments, trying to clear his mind, when he remembered his brother. Slowly he sat up, looking around desperately for the tank. But there was nothing. At first he wanted to believe that it had simply disappeared over the nearby hill before the missiles had hit, but he knew that was not so. Where the vehicle had been was a shallow, wide, smoking pit.

Swallowing his horror, he got up on shaky legs and went over to the location. He called for his brother, but he knew he would get no reply. Then he saw the action figure. Tears filled his eyes, spilling over as he reached down and lifted it up. It was charred from the explosion and missing one leg. But Miruko's fate was much worse. He was missing his life. Alister was all alone now. He had failed to protect his brother.

He was still screaming, but his voice trailed off as Raphael ran up and knelt down beside him. The blonde had heard Alister's heartwrenching pleas from up the street. Now he laid his hand firmly on the redhead's shoulder, gazing down at Valon's still body. The older man's eyes narrowed, sickened as he looked at the bleeding teenager. Valon was either dead or close to it, and Alister was in hysterics. Raphael had rarely seen him like this, and never to this extreme.

"Alister! Alister, what happened!" he demanded, reaching out to press a cloth against Valon's temple. The brunette boy remained motionless, but Raphael thought he caught sight of the slight rise and fall of his chest.

"Miruko . . . Miruko's dead," Alister managed to say. "The tank . . . it exploded. . . ." He continued to press the torn part of his shirt over Valon's chest, but it was as if he was doing so automatically. He was obviously no longer aware of the current situation.

Raphael gripped the other young man's shoulder tightly with one hand while still trying to stop the bleeding with the other. "That's the past, Alister," he said firmly, his heart going out to them both. "You have to concentrate on the present. What happened, Alister? What happened to Valon?" He watched as the youngest of the three stirred briefly. Valon was, indeed, still among the living, but Raphael understood that he would need more help quickly if he was to survive.

Alister shuddered uncontrollably. "They shot him," he answered in a daze. "They shot so many people . . . but they felt they had to shoot him, too. . . . He tried to save me. They were going to shoot me . . . but they didn't. . . . They shot him. . . ." Some part of him knew that he had to get control of his emotions, but he was already remembering the past strongly and mingling it with the events of the present. Somehow, the act of Valon being shot had affected him so immensely that he felt as if he was suffering all of the traumas of his childhood once again. Still, he could hear Raphael's voice calling to him.

"Was he shot in the head? Answer me, Alister!"

Alister forced the question to register. "No," he responded, "in the chest. . . . But he was also cut by flying glass when the headlight of his motorcycle was shot out." In his mind he saw images of people flying helplessly through the air as grenades went off. He trembled again, closing his eyes tightly. He did not want to remember. More than anything, he did not want to. But he could not stop the memories from coming. They insisted on coming, surrounding him as if they were the very spirits of the deceased themselves, intent on making someone recall what had happened to them during the war.

Raphael guided Alister's free hand to the cloth over the head wound. "Hold this here," he instructed, hoping that at least that injury was not a serious one. He watched as the gray-eyed man struggled to do so, while still holding in place the other makeshift bandage on Valon's chest. Raphael did not entirely understand why Alister had seemed to completely lose control of himself this time. Valon, and even Raphael himself, had been injured in the past and Alister had not reacted in this way. Usually Alister managed to remain calm throughout the disasters they endured. But for some reason, it was different this time.

Now the blonde man reached for his cellphone, quickly dialing 911. Alister could hear him talking into the device as he continued trying to slow the bleeding. "I need an ambulance immediately. One of my friends was shot in the chest. . . . Yes, he's still breathing. . . . No, he's not conscious. . . ." Soon it all dissolved into just garbled noises in the background. It mattered little to Alister what was being said. It only mattered that his friend was dying and that he had to keep him alive. He could not allow Valon to die, as Miruko had died in the past. That was unthinkable. He could not let someone else die. . . . Especially not when he cared about the person. . . .

Memories of the events that had led up to this forced themselves onto the stage of Alister's mind. He and Valon had been arguing earlier, about many ridiculous things. It had soon erupted into a disagreement over why Alister never talked much to Valon about the events of his past. Alister had answered that Valon had never actually discussed much of his own past, even leading the other two to believe that he was an orphan when in fact his parents were still alive and had abandoned him as a child. But it had not been one of their worst arguments, and they had reconciled soon after.

In the evening they had both gone out on their motorcycles to ponder over things. Alister, caught up in memories of the past, had driven into a more vacated part of the city, perhaps because he enjoyed solitude. But on this night he had found nothing of the sort. Instead he had wandered right into a battle between two rival gangs in the area. Of course he had immediately tried to escape the vicinity, but the front tire of his motorcycle had been shot out and he had tumbled to the ground. Listening to the many gunshots going off had reminded him all too well of his childhood and the war. The memories had only intensified after that, and as he had got up and again struggled to make his retreat, he had never been quite certain whether he was living in the present or the past.

He still did not know what had brought Valon to that same area. But the Australian boy had ridden up at that point and had told Alister to get on his motorcycle, once he had became aware of the dangerous situation that was going on. Before Alister had been able to comply, more bullets had spun around them and Alister had become confused as he had tried to dodge them. The gangs were intent on their battle and did not care who they wound up injuring, innocent party or not.

In the present, Alister could still hear the guns whistling and Valon crying out as he shoved Alister down and took a bullet that had been about to hit the redhead. He had gasped, falling off his vehicle and receiving a bad cut on his head when the glass from the headlight shattered and flew in every direction. Alister, who had still been on the ground from when Valon had shoved him, had been stunned.

"Hey," Valon had grinned weakly, trying not to let it be known how badly the pain was hurting him, "no worries, chum. You always risk your life for me. No reason why I can't do the same for you. I'm not such a bad guy, y'know."

Vaguely Alister heard the ambulance sirens in the near distance, but he paid them little heed. He was recalling how he had then struggled to get Valon away from that dangerous area. The boy had been conscious for some time after being shot, obviously in great pain but always trying to play it down for Alister's sake. He was just like a friend I lost in the war, the redhead thought to himself now, relieved to find that the flow of blood was finally tapering off. He kept saying he was fine . . . right up to when he . . . he died. . . .

"He's going to be alright, Alister." Suddenly Alister realized that Raphael had been talking to him for most of this time. The blonde had been helping him since hanging up with the dispatcher, and he had been trying to get past the emotionally traumatized state that his younger friend was in, though he had not been having much luck.

Alister raised his gray-eyed gaze to meet Raphael's cerulean orbs. "Will he?" he murmured quietly, showing the first signs of fully coming back to the present situation since Raphael had first arrived on the scene. "Or will he die . . . just like all the others?" He could not see it, but his eyes looked empty and dead.

Raphael was silent for a moment, weighing his answer and feeling disturbed at the way Alister was looking at him. "Everyone dies sometime, Alister," he answered at last. "Even Valon will. We just have to pray that this isn't his time." He did not want their friend to perish. The thought of the boy's life coming to a close already made him ill. Valon was just young, probably around the age Julien would be if he had not died, and Raphael enjoyed his cheerful, carefree personality. He knew that it would be very lonely for both him and Alister if Valon left them. Plus, Alister was definitely not handling the possible truth very well.

"I don't want him to die," he whispered, watching blankly as the ambulance parked and as paramedics from KaibaCorp's infirmary hurried out and over to them. "I don't want him to die . . . like Momma did . . . and Miruko . . . and Holly. . . ." He let Raphael help him up as Valon was gently placed onto a stretcher. "And everyone else. . . ." He had watched neighbors and townsfolk being killed as well. For years he had managed not to have a nervous breakdown because of all the death he had seen, forcing himself to be strong for his brother. Then, after Miruko had been killed, he had been too caught up in his anger and grief to stop to think about all the death he had actually witnessed. But this was the last straw. He could not take it any more.

"I know, Alister," Raphael answered quietly, helping him into the ambulance. "I know." He kept a firm grip on his friend's shoulder as they got settled. He could tell that the poor man was having a breakdown. Gently he took a damp cloth that was offered and wiped the blood from Alister's hands. The redhead watched him blankly.

Raphael was silent for several moments before speaking again. "Now you listen to me, Alister," he announced gruffly, but not unkindly. "We're going to do everything we can to save Valon. But he needs your support. You can't give up on him." The older man looked into the gray eyes of his haunted friend. He knew that Alister was aching, but having a complete collapse of logic and sanity would not help anyone—not him, not Valon, and not Alister himself, either.

"I won't," Alister said after a silence of his own, his voice strained. "I'll never give up . . . on a friend." His own words echoed in his mind as he slumped back against the ambulance wall, still faintly trembling. Yes, Valon was a friend, as was Raphael. They were dear friends, and Alister considered them to be the only true ones he had. They were the ones he had been with throughout the long years of the Doom organization. After everything they had come through together, naturally they had formed close bonds with each other, almost without even realizing it at first. Alister could not imagine either of them not being around.

Raphael kept an arm firmly around the younger man's shoulders as the one driving the vehicle revved the engine and began the quick journey to the KaibaCorp Infirmary, which was the best medical center in Domino City. Alister needed comfort and support right now. It had dawned on Raphael that during a good portion of the war, Alister most likely had not had that. After his mother had died, he would have been forced to grow up swiftly in order to take care of his brother. There would not have been anyone around to comfort him when he needed it. Maybe, Raphael reflected, that was one of the reasons why he had closed off his emotions for so long. It would have been enough to have caused it.

One of the EMTs looked over at the two of them. "He looks almost shellshocked," he commented quietly, observing how Alister had shut his eyes tightly and was murmuring to himself.

Raphael growled low. "He is," he answered, but saw no need to give an explanation of Alister's past and of why this was affecting him so strongly. That was Alister's own, personal business. The medic did not need to know of it.

Valon moaned softly as his wounds were examined and gently probed, but he did not regain consciousness. Raphael turned his attention to the brunette, watching him for several long moments before narrowing his eyes and looking away once more. "What do you think?" he asked the young EMT who had spoken. "Do you think he'll make it?" He felt Alister go stiff and still under his grip. Obviously he was aware enough of the present that he had processed the question—and that he feared the answer.

The other man, who actually did not appear to be much older than Raphael himself, bit his lip. "It's hard to say," he responded carefully. "If the bullet did not pierce anything vital, then his chances will certainly be better. . . . But we won't know for certain whether it did or not until we get him back to the medical center." He ran a hand over his face. "In any case, he's young and tough. . . ." He trailed off and glanced briefly at Alister again before looking back to Raphael. "Do you know how long ago this happened?"

Raphael looked down, distressed to realize that he did not. "No," he admitted, "but I called the ambulance as soon as I arrived on the scene. Alister was the one with him when it happened. . . ." But he supposed that it could not have occurred so frightfully long ago, or Valon might not still be alive. Even so, it had certainly looked as though he had lost a lot of blood.

"I guess . . . the three of you must be very close," the EMT remarked after a short lapse of silence. He watched as Raphael continued to try to comfort Alister, who had opened his eyes again and looked to be in despair. Raphael looked distressed himself, both about Valon and about Alister's reaction. And, if the EMT was hearing Alister's mumbles correctly, then Valon had taken the bullet to protect the redhead.

"You have no idea," Raphael muttered. He did not believe that anyone would truly understand the strong bonds they had with each other. Only they themselves could understand, because of the experiences they had gone through that had brought them together.

Valon allowed Darkness to take hold of him, embracing him in her cold clutches and touching him with her icy fingers. He shivered vaguely, wondering how he had allowed this to happen to him, and then he remembered being shot. There was a dull pain in his chest, but Darkness seemed to make all traces of it disappear as she gently held the teenager. Though Valon did not especially enjoy her presence, he relaxed into the sweet nothingness and just hoped that Alister was alright now and not laying wounded as well.

Kinda crazy . . . how I jumped in like that to save him, he mused. He's a good fella and all . . . but I never woulda thought I'd wind up so close to him. . . . Of all guys I could wind up being chums with, it would havta be someone completely different from me. Heh. . . . We don't have anything in common. But I guess . . . the longer it takes you to get used to someone . . . the more you care about 'im. At least . . . I guess that's what happened here. He still gets on my nerves, but hey, he's family. So's Raph.

Valon had never thought he would be friends with anyone. As a child, he had been in and out of various gangs, foster homes, and orphanages, but he had never found any true friends at any of those locations. No one had wanted to befriend him, most likely because he refused to conform to anything and was always a rebel. The life of a loner was often sad and filled with heartaches, but Valon had determined a long time ago that it was the life he would lead. He would rather be alone than to be with people who could not appreciate him for what he was.

Alister and Raphael were different, however. While they were not interested in most of the things that Valon was, they did not criticize and they did not expect him to change. They genuinely cared about the young, outspoken Australian, and they had earned Valon's trust and caring in return. Over the years they had known each other, Valon had gone from just considering them mere "associates" to trusting them with his life. He was happy with them and did not desire to roam freely, as he once had. He finally had somewhere to call home.

I guess . . . if this is the end, it won't be so bad, he decided.He settled into Darkness' arms, giving a soft sigh. Dying was not what he had planned on doing today, but maybe some things could not be controlled. He knew that he had determined his own fate, however, when he had sacrificed to save Alister. You better appreciate it, mate, he said silently. I don't know if I'm gonna be comin' back from this. . . . So make the best outta the whole thing.

Then the image of Alister's stunned, horrified eyes flashed through Valon's mind. Valon had never seen the redhead look at him in that way. He realized that Alister did not want him to die, and neither would Raphael. Somewhere in his confusion he vowed to keep fighting. After all . . . that was what he was best at, was it not?

I'm not givin' up, he vowed firmly. That's one thing you can't get me to do, he told Darkness. I'm crazy for even considering letting you win!

The hospital was filled with the sights and smells of medicine. Every few minutes a message would come over the intercom, calling for various doctors and nurses and occasionally, reporting an urgent problem with a patient. Sometimes a patient would be wheeled past the open door, either on his or her way to a private room or to the operating room.

Alister was leaning forward on a couch in the waiting room, blankly gazing at the floor and barely listening to the noise going on around him. He felt as though he was once again a twelve-year-old boy who felt helpless because he was the only one who could take care of Miruko. He hated that feeling of helplessness. He hated watching people dying in front of him and knowing that there was nothing he could do about it. He hated remembering that he had not been able to save his brother.

He rubbed his eyes. He was not completely lost in the past. He was quite aware of where he was at the moment, and he was not extremely pleased. Hospitals were not ranked among his favorite places. He just prayed that the doctors would be able to help Valon. Already it seemed as though he and Raphael had been waiting for ages, even though it had actually only been a few moments.

Raphael, who was sitting next to him on the couch, watched him carefully. It seemed to him that his friend just might be not quite so caught up in his memories right now, and the blonde man was relieved if that was so. Alister looked now as though he was at least partially aware of what was going on around him, and that he was not very happy with any of it. After a moment, Raphael chanced to speak. "Alister?"

The redhead looked up at him. His gray eyes were weary and sad, but—to Raphael's relief—showed an awareness of the present. Whatever bout of madness he had been suffering seemed to have passed. Raphael did not know it, but his presence had helped a great deal in calming Alister again.

Raphael gently laid his hand on Alister's shoulder, giving it a quiet squeeze. "Valon's strong," he said firmly. "He'll pull through." He could not ignore the way Alister looked like a lost child, with his despondent eyes and hopeless expression. This seemed so out of character for Alister that Raphael was still quite worried. Usually Alister was able to be the calmest out of all three of them.

For a long time the redhead simply studied Raphael without verbally responding at all. "I've seen so many people die, Raphael," Alister spoke at last, his tone world-weary. "Men, women, children. . . ." His voice caught as he spoke the last word. "I can't stand it. . . ." His eyes narrowed and he looked ahead at the wall. "I've always tried to be strong . . . to not give in to the pain of the memories . . . but sometimes . . . sometimes I fail. . . . When I'm having nightmares, I often wake up and feel a certain terror, as if everything is happening again and I'm just as helpless to prevent it. . . . Usually, though, I manage not to let anyone see how badly I'm aching. But when I saw Valon being shot . . . it did something to me. . . . I . . . I don't know. . . ." He looked at Raphael, who was watching and listening patiently and with a bit of surprise that Alister was expressing some of his deepest feelings. Alister himself was not surprised. Every so often, even he needed someone to talk to, to confide in, and who would understand. Raphael was a dear friend who did exactly that, even when he himself was hurting. "I don't understand it . . . but . . . I felt as if I was watching my brother die all over again. . . ."

Raphael understood, however. "Maybe that's because, for you, you were," he deduced quietly. "Valon is like a younger brother now . . . for both of us. I know you love him in that way. To see him dying right in front of you would be almost unbearable, especially after what you went through before." He knew that Alister had not opened his heart to the two of them at first because he had been afraid of losing them the way he had lost his biological family. When he had finally accepted their friendship, he had known that he was risking the pain again, but he had decided that it was a risk he would be willing to take.

Alister did not deny that Raphael was right. "It wasn't always this way," he commented. "But I did care, even when Valon thought I didn't." He gave a weak smile, tinged with irony. "I was surprised when Valon said he thought I hated him. . . . Really, though, I shouldn't have been. After all, I never gave him the impression of one who's very friendly and likes people." He gazed down at his hands, as if half-expecting to see Valon's blood adorning them once more. "Valon thought that I was heartless. . . . He never realized how much death I've seen . . . and how I hate it. . . . Or how badly my heart aches. . . ." He sighed, leaning back against the couch. "Of course . . . I don't blame him. I never wanted him or anyone to know. To let something like that be known . . . makes one vulnerable." And being vulnerable was not something Alister enjoyed. In general he considered it a weakness if he could not conceal his emotions well. He had done it so well for years, after all.

Raphael continued to listen. It was rare that Alister ever began to bear his soul to anyone, and the blonde knew for that his friend to do so meant that he was still suffering immensely. After keeping the pain bottled up for so many years, Alister had finally reached a breaking point. "He knows now that you care," he said then. "So apparently at some point, you finally decided to let him know."

Alister nodded slowly before he suddenly changed the subject. "I hate seeing people get hurt," he said bitterly, "and yet I was trying in the past to inflict harm on Kaiba." He clenched a fist tightly. "It's ironic, isn't it."

"You still hate yourself for that, don't you?" Raphael looked at him with stern, yet compassionate eyes.

"I do," Alister answered darkly. "How can I ever forgive myself for trying to capture Kaiba's soul, when that would have taken Mokuba's brother from him? Don't you understand, Raphael? I would have done to the Kaiba family exactly what I hated them for doing to me!" And maybe I considered it an eye for an eye . . . but that's no excuse for what I did. Oh how he despised himself when he would recall those times during Doom, when rage had fueled his being!

Raphael sighed softly. "That's what hatred and the Orichalcos does to you," he answered. "But the good news is that we overcame it. We conquered the madness and the hate." He knew, however, that this was not likely to make Alister feel better right now.

Alister gave a rueful smile. "Yes . . . but that doesn't erase what I tried to do. I wanted to stop wars, and suffering, and yet I was so blinded that I couldn't see how I would tear a family apart. I deserved to have my own soul taken instead. I needed to experience what it felt like." He ran a hand through his bangs, not stopping to think that perhaps his soul had already been taken, in a metaphoric sense, soon after Miruko's death. Having it physically ripped from his body at the end of his second duel with Seto Kaiba had, perhaps, only sealed what had already been. Then, when he had conquered his inner darkness and had helped to stop the Leviathan, his soul had been freed—literally and metaphorically. "Sometimes, I feel so old, Raphael. . . . I've seen so much. . . . I've changed so much from the child I once was. . . . I wonder what Miruko thinks of me now . . . after everything. . . ." He was ashamed of many of his past actions. He hated the thought that Miruko, watching over him as a guardian angel, had seen how he had descended into the darkness, consumed by his guilt and hatred. That seemed more horrifying than anything else.

"He still loves you, Alister," Raphael said firmly, understanding what his friend's thoughts must be. "Remember when he came to you when we were freed from the Leviathan? And you said you saw him again, that time when you were beaten and then clinically dead. He doesn't think any less of you. You're his brother. He'll always love you." My family still loves me as well. When I saw them after everyone's souls had been freed, they reassured me of that. They understood that we had been misguided and that we didn't really want to cause pain to anyone.

Alister knew that was true. Miruko loved him unconditionally, even though that was hard at times for the redhead to comprehend. He hated himself for many of the things he had done—or not done—and the realization that he was still loved anyway was often overwhelming. "He was a better person than I could ever be," he commented softly. "He was so innocent . . . so trusting . . . so loving. . . . And yet . . . if he had lived . . . he might have turned out the same as me. I was once like him, before the war ever started. But then I became bitter and cold." In the back of his mind, he could still hear the laughter of his younger self. Once he had been carefree and happy, believing that nothing could go wrong for his family. Years later, when it was only him and Miruko, he had still tried to laugh and be carefree, but only for his brother's sake. By that time his innocence and his trust had been shattered.

Raphael watched him for several moments before answering. "Maybe," he agreed, "but I think you're too hard on yourself. You're not as bitter and cold as you seem to think you are. Actually, you're one of the most feeling, loving people I know." He looked at him firmly while Alister gave him an incredulous expression that demanded an explanation. "You had a breakdown earlier because you couldn't stand any longer to see people dying—and especially not someone whom you consider to be a brother. You'd give up your life in an instant if you thought it would save Valon or me. I doubt that someone who was truly bitter and cold would do that."

Alister considered this. "No, maybe not," he conceded.

Now the gray-eyed man looked about, searching for a clock. "How long have we been here?" he asked. Normally he was not interested in time, but right now he was worrying about Valon. He figured the longer Valon was in the operating room, the more likely it was that there had been complications. And that he might die. . . .

"I don't think it's been very long," Raphael answered. He, of course, was nervous and concerned as well, but right now he was hiding it. The way Alister usually does. . . . Alister needed his comfort and understanding at the moment, so Raphael was determined to give it to him.

Alister nodded vaguely, clenching a fist. "You know," he said abruptly, "I was shot in the chest once. . . ." He could feel Raphael looking at him in surprise. "I was only a child then." In his mind he could still hear his brother's panicked screams after watching Alister be struck down by the cruel bullet. . . . He could again feel the excruciating pain, the dizziness, and the blood that he had started to cough up. Subconsciously he reached up, touching the spot on his chest where he knew the scar was.

Raphael was sickened by this information. "Was it an accident?" he finally dared to ask. He did not want to think that someone would deliberately shoot a child, but he knew that, unfortunately, there were people in the world who were wicked enough to do so. And especially in a war, it seemed as though the only rule was that there were no rules.

The redhead looked thoughtful. "I believe it was," he said slowly, "but I'm actually not entirely sure. The bullet just came out of nowhere and hit me. . . . I had no time to think or react. . . . It was just suddenly there." He clicked open the locket he was wearing, studying the pictures of his mother and Miruko that he kept inside. Those were the only photographs he had of either of them. Any albums that the family had possessed had eventually been destroyed during the bombing raids and the fires. "That's how a lot of people died—sudden and swift," he mused, "but others had to suffer for months before finally passing on."

Raphael knew that Alister's past was a fragile subject for him to discuss. He hardly ever made mention of the events that had taken place, even to Raphael. And so, though Raphael was tempted to ask him some questions about that time in his life, he contemplated on whether he actually should. Perhaps, he decided, he should leave it up to Alister to say what he wanted to. "But you didn't die," he said at last, as if inviting his friend to continue his musing, if he desired.

"No, I didn't," Alister agreed, finishing with, "but my brother did." He sighed, idly fingering the locket as he leaned back. "The war was horrible. . . . It took a lot of brothers' lives—and it changed the survivors' lives permanently. After going through something like that, one can never be the same. One's entire personality is altered, as well as their views on life and death, the world, and God." He looked up at the ceiling, but he was not focusing on the tiles. Instead he was seeing images of the past—his family before the war, during the war, and himself alone after it had ended. He saw his first meetings with the other bikers, their experiences during Doom, their successes and failures. . . . And he saw, again and again, both when the tank had exploded and when Valon had been shot—two events that now seemed to be intertwined with each other.

"And has your view on God changed from what it was?" Raphael asked then. He knew that Alister believed in God and would pray at times for the safety of others, but it was not a subject they had ever delved into extremely deeply.

Alister pondered over this. "I don't know," he admitted at last, then perked up as he saw a doctor coming towards them. Instantly he was cold and aloof again, all traces of opening his heart and soul gone.

"How is he?" he questioned, his voice quiet and with a hint of "No beating around the bush; I want to know the truth." Raphael gave the doctor an equally stern gaze. Between the two of them, they most likely made the poor fellow somewhat nervous.

"He's . . . well, we managed to remove the bullet," the surgeon reported, pulling the small cap off from his head. He looked weary and exhausted, and with good reason. The bit of lead had gone in deep and had not been easy to extricate. "I'll say this for him—he's a tough kid."

Raphael grunted. "But is he going to be alright?" he demanded in a low, frustrated tone as he stood up. "Just tell us."

The doctor sighed, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "Even though you both worked very hard to control the bleeding, he still lost quite a lot of blood," he reported, looking from one to the other. "It took a long time before we were able to get it completely stopped. In addition, he struck his head very hard after being cut by the glass." Alister's eyes narrowed at this, remembering how Valon had crashed onto the pavement.

"Does he have a concussion?" the redhead asked now.

"It's possible," the doctor agreed. "His pupils aren't dilated, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he doesn't have a concussion. For that knowledge, we'll probably have to wait and see if he wakes up."

"If?" Raphael repeated, feeling a certain twisting of his insides. Alister stared.

"Yes," was the answer after a brief hesitation. "The truth is, at one point we lost him for several minutes. We weren't able to bring him back for almost a quarter of an hour. So . . . we're not sure if he sustained permanent brain damage or not. He must have some form of brain damage, since his brain was not receiving oxygen for those fifteen minutes." He sighed, looking from Alister to Raphael and back again. Delivering bad news to a patient's loved ones was never an easy thing to do. It was among his least favorite tasks of all. And he could see that these two young men were highly distressed.

Alister felt dizzy again. Brain damage? That was one thing he had never stopped to consider. Valon was so carefree and mischievous. . . . How could he possibly have brain damage? He clenched a fist, refusing to dwell on the thought. To his side, he heard Raphael growl low in displeasure at the news.

"Where is he?" the redhead asked at last. He wanted to go to Valon, to watch him and to make sure that he did not have brain damage. Surely, he would wake up and be alright. . . . That was what he wanted to believe. He did not think he could bear it if it did not happen. Everyone around me seems to eventually meet an undesirable fate, he silently decided. Why? What kind of curse is this? He did not truly believe that he was cursed, but in his frustration over the events, he sometimes felt like it.

The doctor sighed. "Come along," he declared, turning to go out of the room. "I'll take you both to him."

Alister and Raphael gazed down at their practically lifeless friend with a mixture of sadness and worry. It just seemed so wrong, seeing Valon laying so still in the hospital bed. . . . He was breathing on his own, much to the doctors' surprise, especially after he had flatlined earlier. He was laying on his back, his blue eyes closed and his fluffy brown hair spread out on the pillow. A bit of white gauze covered his right temple, where the glass had cut him. Another bandage was over his chest, but concealed by the shirt he was wearing. He seemed to mumble in his sleep, but then was silent and did not begin to revive.

Alister sighed to himself, lowering his lanky form into a nearby chair at the side of the bed. He was aware of Raphael sitting down next to him, but he remained silent for some time, pondering on Valon's condition and on their pasts. They had all experienced such different pasts . . . and yet . . . and yet they had all eventually met, brought together through the designs of a delusional man. Now they were kindred spirits, though their personalities were so extremely different. Valon was cheerful and playful. Raphael was wise and serious. And Alister was aloof and quiet. But tonight, for some reason, Alister felt more willing to be open about himself and his past. He watched Valon as he proceeded to speak again.

"Miruko went through so much," he murmured softly, "especially after Momma died. I tried hard to be both a brother and a parent, but . . . a child that age just isn't meant for that responsibility." He leaned over Valon slightly, checking to see if the brunette was suffering a fever, and then rubbed at his gray eyes tiredly.

"You're right," Raphael answered, laying a hand on Alister's shoulder. "You should never have had to be put through that." And yet, if Alister had not, what would he be like today? Raphael had to wonder. Would he still be as detached and remote as ever, or would he have a more open and friendly quality? Would he be as devoted to justice? The events of their pasts had shaped all of their personalities greatly. And even though none of them had wanted to suffer losing loved ones or growing up in harsh environments, those experiences had helped them each to grow.

Alister leaned back in the chair again, watching as Valon briefly moved about and then lay still again. "I imagine he'd be upset with me if I decided to tell you a bit more about my past," he murmured with a wry, yet weak, smirk. "That's what we were arguing about earlier . . . that I never talk to him about it. . . ." It seemed like an eternity ago now. Alister wished, as he had about so many things before, that he could go back in time, rewriting the incident so it would not have occurred. He did not want to have to witness Valon being shot, nor to hear the cry of pain that had escaped the boy's lips. He did not want to have the realization that his friend might have sustained brain damage and would never be the same, even if he did survive. He did not want to watch another brother suffer and die. It weighed far too heavily on his heart to have had Miruko perish in the past, especially when he laid blame on himself.

"You don't have to tell me anything more," Raphael assured him, regarding the younger man with both compassion and concern. Alister's emotions were clearly written in his eyes. Talking about the past still pained him.

"I know," Alister answered then, "but for the first time in ages, I actually want to. Maybe . . . when Valon wakes up . . . I'll talk to him about it as well." He looked at the Australian as if realizing something only now. It was amazing, how insights would come to him at the strangest of times. "He's almost always wanted to know about me. . . . But in the past, I mostly thought he was just curious and that he didn't really care about me personally. . . ." He sighed, feeling the inner turmoil within his soul continuing. A certain amount of that turmoil never seemed to leave him be, though some times were worse than others. "Even when I finally did realize that he truly did care, I still didn't want to share these things with him. He's always been so hyperactive. . . . I thought that he wouldn't understand . . . that he couldn't understand . . . that it would be beyond his ability to do so. And also . . . I hated to burden him with the realities of war. Yet . . . I do believe, especially now, that he's mature enough to handle it."

Raphael nodded approvingly. "He cares about you a lot. If you're willing to share your past, I think he'll be ready to listen." He was glad to see Alister deciding this on his own, as Valon had often come to him, complaining that Alister would never tell him about his life. Raphael knew Alister's reasons, and he had tried to reassure Valon of them, but the brunette boy had still wished that Alister would share his feelings with them more often.

Alister gazed at his younger friend, blinking in abrupt astonishment as he saw him reach up to weakly rub at his wound before going limp again. "I don't think it's probable that he has brain damage," he mused thoughtfully. Valon mumbled in his unconsciousness, turning his head to the side.

Raphael smiled a bit in relieved amusement. Valon would revive soon and everything would go back to normal. At least, that was what he fervently hoped.

I was twelve when it began, Alister remembered, gazing up at the many-tiled ceiling once again. Oh . . . not the war. The war had been going on for some time before that. But I was twelve when the bus my mother was on crashed into another bus as a result of then-unknown causes. Originally they just thought the brakes had failed. Later on they found out that they had been deliberately tampered with. It wasn't a surprise.

I was going there that day to meet her. . . . I just didn't make it there in time. One more thing in my life that I have to regret. And yet I knew that even if I had arrived sooner, it wouldn't have changed things. The only thing that might have been different was that I might have actually witnessed the accident. As it was, I didn't arrive until afterwards.

I stood staring at the mangled bus, wanting to run over there to find Momma. I knew she was inside, but I didn't want to believe that she had gotten hurt. As I was running, I was grabbed from behind by a strong soldier in my country's army.

"We've already gotten the survivors out," he said softly. "Kid, there's no one else alive. You can't go in there." But I refused to believe that. They could have overlooked someone. My mother had to still be alive!

I pushed away from my captor. "You have to let me go in there!" I yelled. "My mother was on that bus!" I had been screaming that repeatedly during the time when I had been held back, and now I could see the stricken expressions of the soldiers. They were probably thinking about how I was another war orphan, and how many more of them there were now. I know that the crash must have torn so many families apart. The Mackenzies were not the only ones to suffer tragedy that day.

"Kid, I'm sorry," said the one who had been holding onto me, "but if she was in there, she won't be coming out again. And she wouldn't want you to see whatever's happened to her and the others."

I didn't want to listen. I knew there were no more survivors. But when I saw the remaining wreckage, I ran toward it anyway. . . . My mind was blank. All I could think of was that my mother—Miruko's mother—couldn't be dead. That was too impossible to be true. She was all we had. I loved her. . . . And I knew Miruko wouldn't be able to stand it if she was gone.

Stumbling, I managed to get on board and past the bodies laying in the doorway. Even though I had seen death before, now there were so many such corpses in one place. . . . I felt dizzy and nauseated. This was what war and hatred caused—so many senseless, innocent deaths. . . . It was horrible. All I wanted was to get off that bus, but something held me there. I couldn't leave, not until I knew that Momma had been there. What if she wasn't there? What if she'd missed the bus and she would be coming on a later one? I didn't want to give up on her.

And so I forced myself to remain there, gingerly pushing aside the plush seats and stepping around the bodies. I tried not to look at their faces. I didn't want to see whatever feelings had been permanently etched into their remains—horror, pain, anguish. . . . I just wanted to find my mother.

And I did find her. She was laying on the floor, partially underneath one of the seats, and she was bleeding from a head wound. She had probably died instantly.

I knelt down beside her, shaking her gently, and I tried to wake her up, but I knew it was pointless. I didn't know that I was crying, but when one of the soldiers finally came and pulled me away, I felt the moisture running down the sides of my face. For several minutes I could do nothing more than allow myself to be dragged out of the bus, but then I wrenched free again and turned to run away somewhere . . . anywhere. . . . Anywhere but here. I always knew I hated war, but now I was discovering just how much. It was tearing my family apart.

I wasn't expecting Miruko to have followed me there. I had left him at home, but suddenly, as I was about to leave, he came running up to me, his eyes wild with fright. "Alister! Alister!" He pulled on my arm, then hugged it. "I'm sorry!" he sobbed, before I could say anything. "I know I was supposed to stay home, but I heard on the TV about what happened and I got scared. . . . I had to come find you. . . . I had to make sure you were okay, 'cause I knew you were coming here." He was terrified. That was obvious. And his next words tore at my heart. "Where's Momma?"

I swallowed hard, trying to think of what to say. How could I tell him the truth that she was dead? He was too young to have to face this. "She's . . . gone away," I finally told him, laying my hand on his shoulder. It was true, but I couldn't bring myself to tell him the details.

"She went to Heaven, didn't she?" He looked at me with heart-breaking gray eyes, clutching that old figure in his hands. I could see the tears ready to spill over.

I wanted to tell him that No, she hadn't, and that we'd be able to find her, but I knew she was dead. I had seen her. But before I could get the strength to tell him, he ran right into the mess, screaming for Momma. Knowing that he would probably see the corpses of the passengers, I ran after him. He should never have to see something so terrible. He should never have to see what I had just come from—the sight of our mother's body.

I myself had already seen a lot of death, even before this. The war had started several years before this, when I was nine. Miruko had been too young to understand any of it, but I had to learn quickly. Air raids were frequent, as well as vicious battles in the nearby areas. No one was safe from tragedy. I had seen many families mourning over the losses of loved ones who had been in the army—fathers, brothers, uncles. . . . I had seen children orphaned after bomb attacks. . . . I had heard them crying in the night, as they were led away to orphanages and churches. . . . Now Miruko and I were orphans, too.

There were the thoughts tumbling in my mind as I ran after Miruko. His desperate screams were echoing all around the area, and growing more panicked with each passing minute. Then I heard a soft thump and a pained cry.

An arrow shot into my heart. Had he found Momma's body? I ran over the debris frantically, stumbling, until I found Miruko kneeling on the ground, sobbing. As he looked up at me, I could tell from his eyes that he had not seen our mother's body, nor anyone else's. He had looked in the other bus, whose victims had already been taken away. I relaxed—slightly. "I can't find her, Alister!" he wailed, trembling. "I can't find Momma! She's gone!"

I knelt down in front of him, gathering his small body into my arms. "I know," I whispered, holding him close. Tears came to my eyes, but I held them back. I had to be the strong one. Now that Momma was gone, I was the only one who could be. I was determined not to let her—or Miruko—down.

"You're not gonna go away too, are you, big brother?" Miruko sobbed, his voice muffled as he kept his face buried against my shirt.

"No," I answered firmly, "of course not." I hoped I could keep this promise.

We didn't stay very much longer after that before going back home. Miruko was exhausted from running all the way to where I was and then not being able to find Momma, so I carried him on my back. He fell asleep before we got there. But that was better for him anyway. Maybe in sleep he would be able to leave reality behind. I wished I could. . . .

After he had fallen asleep, I had watched the soldiers carrying the bodies out of the other bus. The corpses were on gurneys and covered by sheets, but the sight was still eerie. I had turned away, hugging Miruko close, and then had quickly left before he would awaken again.

I was angry. Why had it happened? Why did so many people have to die in order to free our country from the oppression it was under? Why did innocent people have to be killed, people who still had their lives ahead of them? Why did our mother have to be one of them? I had heard that even several children had died in the collision. The thought angered me then, as it still does now. But on the other hand, perhaps those children were luckier than many of the ones w were left behind. . . .

The house seemed so empty when I opened the door. There wasn't the smell of food cooking in the kitchen, as there usually was whenever we came home from school. There wasn't the sound of Momma happily singing throughout the house. I knew that she was often sad, but she said that Miruko and I made her happy. But I also think that sometimes she had to put on an act, for our sakes. She wouldn't want us to realize that she was worried and distressed.

I used to put on such acts myself, both for Miruko and for Momma. I didn't want them to worry about me, and I knew that if Miruko realized how upset I was over everything, then he would become scared and frightened. After Miruko's death, I didn't have the strength any longer to pretend to be cheerful. After all, I didn't have anyone then who needed reassurance that everything would be alright. I put on a different kind of act then. I made everyone believe that my heart had died. I believed it myself.

I carried my brother into the room that we both shared in our small house. He gave a soft sigh as I backed up against the bed and lowered him onto it. As I gently removed his shoes and helped him get under the covers, he stirred and looked up at me with half-open, sleep-filled eyes.

"Momma's not coming back, is she?" he sniffled, tears gathering in his gray orbs. "She's never gonna come back. . . ."

I sat on the edge of the bed, ruffling his hair. "No," I said quietly, "but she wouldn't want you to be sad. Remember, she always talked about how beautiful Heaven is. She . . . she's really lucky that she gets to see it now. . . ." I forced down the lump in my throat. Momma had often talked of the afterlife, and for her sake, and later, for Miruko's as well, I prayed that it really did exist. I wanted to believe that there was a peaceful place where those we love could go.

During Doom, I wanted to recreate my idea of a peaceful place for those on earth, but it didn't work that way. And deep down, I know that during that period I had been acting largely on feelings of hate—both for Seto Kaiba and for myself. I couldn't create peace from hate.

Now Miruko clutched the edge of the quilt. "I know," he hiccuped, and then was asleep again. I sighed, pulling the covers around him before wandering into the bathroom.

I splashed cold water on my face, then looked up into the mirror at my reflection. What a sorry sight I was. I was supposed to be the strong one, but right then, as it fully dawned on me that I was all alone with Miruko, I didn't feel strong at all.

For a long time I remained there, kneeling on the floor as I cried. I wanted someone there to comfort me. I wanted Momma there. But she would never come back, and I knew that she wouldn't even get a proper burial. We had no money to pay for a funeral, and there were no other relatives around to help us out or to take us in. She would just end up being buried in a cheap, unmarked grave—if that. Most of the passengers, if not all, would probably just be carelessly thrown into a mass grave. I hated the thought of that happening to Momma, but I knew there wasn't anything I could do about it. If she had any money left in the bank at all, I knew that she would want me to take it to support myself and Miruko, not to give her the burial she deserved.

"Why did this have to happen?" I sobbed, making sure my voice was muffled into the fluffy towel I had grabbed from the hall closet. "I don't think I can do this, Momma! I need you here . . . Miruko needs you here. . . . I don't know how to be an adult already!" I felt another round of tears coming and I let them come, rocking back and forth slowly. This was the last time in a long while that I would allow myself to cry. And I vowed to myself that I would make certain that Miruko never saw my sorrow, just as he had never seen Momma's. He deserved as much of a childhood as he could possibly have.

Holly came over the next day to check on us. After her own parents had been killed, she had been taken in by an aunt who lived nearby. As always, she was worried about us, though she rarely ever came right out and said so. She didn't need to.

Holly was the child of my mother's best friend. They had used to live next-door to us. She was a year younger than me and we had grown up together. We were close friends, though we hadn't seen as much of each other since her aunt had adopted her. Miruko liked her a lot as well. He always looked forward to her visits.

As I opened the door to let her in, she gazed at me with concerned hazel eyes. "Alright, what happened?" she demanded without even saying hello. She was like that sometimes—she could look into one's eyes and determine if something was wrong. It usually only worked well with those she cared about, though. But maybe I was still stricken from the previous day's events and not being good at concealing it.

I was momentarily surprised, both to see her and for her to suddenly ask that. But I shouldn't have been surprised. I knew how Holly was, and how close we were as friends. I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again and clenched a fist. "Momma's dead," I finally choked out.

She stared at me, not comprehending at first. Then she hurried in, shutting the door behind her as her gaze turned aghast. "Oh Alister," she whispered, not having expected that at all. Gently she embraced me, a gesture which I returned. She had loved our mother too, considering her a second mother after her own had died with pneumonia. For a while we thought that she would stay with us, until her aunt had turned up. "How did it happen?"

And so I told her in hushed tones as we went into the kitchen. Miruko was still sleeping, and I didn't want him to wake up hearing our discussion. I was telling Holly everything—how I had come too late . . . my vain hopes that Momma was still alive . . . my experience wandering into the wreckage. . . . She listened to it all, as she always did, her eyes filled with horror and sadness.

"I'm so sorry," she said softly when I'd finished. "And poor Miruko. . . . He must be taking it hard as well, isn't he? He's so young, but he's old enough to understand death. . . ."

"I wish he wasn't," I answered bitterly. "He should be able to enjoy his childhood better. He was so young when this stupid war started. . . . I don't think he even remembers what life was like when there weren't bombs going off and people dying every day." But I remembered. Every day I remembered. All I wanted was for time to turn back to before any of this had happened—when all of us were a happy family, before my father started drinking and becoming abusive . . . before he went insane and eventually died because of it . . . before Holly's parents had been killed and she had been forced to go away with a strict guardian who rarely let her out of the house . . . and before Momma had been killed on that bus.

Holly was silent for a moment, silently agreeing. "What are you going to do?" she asked quietly.

I shrugged. "I don't know. . . . We have some food storage in the basement. That might not last us long, though . . . and with the way things are going, we might not even have a house before long." I spoke flatly, crossing my arms on the table. Even as a child, I would rarely beat around the bush, unless I was attempting to help Miruko not to worry so much. Otherwise I saw little point in trying to sugarcoat things.

Holly's eyes brightened. "Maybe the two of you could come live with me," she said hopefully. "I could ask my aunt about it today. She knows how close we've always been and all. . . ."

I interrupted her before she could get too carried away with her musing. "Your aunt also doesn't like me, remember? She thinks that I'm old enough to be working and doesn't understand why I'm not." I narrowed my eyes. "I've tried to find work before, to help Momma get some extra money. There aren't any jobs around, especially not for boys my age. We're in the middle of a war, for crying out loud!" I brushed the crimson bangs out of my eyes. "But anyway, I really don't want to leave Miruko while I'm off somewhere working, especially right now. . . . You know how he is, Holly—he's confused and scared and he'll want me to be there for him. I think that's the most important thing right now."

"I think so too!" Holly said firmly. "We could convince Aunt Felicia. . . ." But she trailed off, knowing that I was right. Her aunt wanted to send Holly off to boarding school as soon as possible, in order to get her away from the warzone. Even if Felicia were to accept Miruko and I as wards, I knew that Miruko wouldn't be happy there and that if I was forced to go find work, he wouldn't want to be all alone in that house with just that aunt. If Holly was at boarding school, he wouldn't even have her around to be with him.

I shook my head. "She might even try to send me to military school," I said darkly, remembering how I'd overheard her talking about the possibility before. "I could never leave Miruko like that. It just wouldn't work out, Holly. I don't want to take any chances on being separated from my brother right now. I'm all he has left."

She sighed. "I know. I just wish . . . I just wish I could do something to help you. . . ." Her eyes narrowed. "Instead I'll be able to get out of this country by going to boarding school, and the two of you will be stranded here! It just doesn't seem fair." She didn't want her fate to be any different than mine and Miruko's. As it turned out later, her fate was the same as Miruko's.

It was then that Miruko wandered sleepily into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes as he tried to completely wake up. As he managed to focus, his countenance brightened. "Holly!" he chirped, running over and hugging her. "You haven't come for a while. . . ." And I knew he had missed her, just as I had.

She held him close. "Hey there," she smiled. "Have you been keeping out of trouble, just like I told you?" She was good with children, and Miruko adored her. During bomb raids in the past, when all of us would be in the cramped shelters, she would gather all the children together and try to take their minds off of being afraid. It usually worked, too. Since I was also good with kids, I usually helped her. Miruko had told me once that he felt completely safe and secure with us there, and Momma.

Now Miruko grinned happily and nodded. "Yup!" For a few moments his sorrow was forgotten, lost by either a good night's sleep or else Holly's presence. At least, that was what I thought.

He looked up at me. "Is Momma coming home soon?" he asked.

I froze, stunned. Holly and I exchanged worried looks before I turned my gaze back to him. "Miruko," I said quietly, "you know that Momma can't come home." My voice nearly caught in my throat as I spoke. I hated having to destroy his obvious enthusiasm, but he couldn't live a lie. He had to understand that pretending and hoping wasn't going to change what was. It was true that I often tried to help him not worry so much, but not when it came to the subject of our mother being dead. That was something he needed to fully understand.

Miruko glared at me. "No! That's not true!" he yelled. "She is too coming home, because she told me she would!" His light gray eyes glistened with tears. "It was just a bad dream, Alister . . . when she . . . she died. . . ." His small body was trembling and I could hardly bear to watch and listen to him. "We couldn't find her, Alister, so that means she's still okay!" He looked up at Holly. "Tell him!" he pleaded. "Tell him she's okay!"

Holly looked trapped. After a moment she said gently and sadly, "Oh Miruko . . . I wish I could tell him. I wish it was true. But he's right." Carefully she smoothed back his bangs, even as he pulled away from her.

"No!" he wailed. "No, he's not right! Momma's coming home!"

I got up, walking over to the other side of the rounded table. Slowly I knelt down to be at my brother's eye level. I knew that now I needed to tell this to him. "Miruko . . . yesterday I did find Momma, before you came," I tried to explain, hating that I had to tell this to him. I hadn't wanted him to have to know. "She . . . she was dead." I felt tears in my own eyes, but I held them back. I wasn't going to cry now. I wasn't ever going to let Miruko see me cry.

Miruko shoved me away. "Shut up!" he sobbed, running for the door. "Momma's alive, and I'm going to find her!" He struggled with the handle, trying to push it down so that he could get out, but he was too upset to be able to make it work. Both Holly and I were able to reach him before he could. Stubbornly he fought against us, still trying to make the door open, but when Holly gently took his hands away from the handle he finally gave up and collapsed to the floor, continuing to cry. When I knelt down beside him, he dove into my arms and clung to me desperately. He knew what was true. It was just that he wanted so badly for it not to be true.

"I'm sorry, buddy," I told him quietly, my heart breaking for him. "I'm sorry."

Miruko didn't answer, hugging me close as the sobs racked his body.

I wish I could say that Holly did go to boarding school, away from our war-torn country, but that's not what happened.

One of the soldiers in our country's army was Holly's older brother. She worried about him a lot, though she tried not to show it. One day she and I were wandering around when we found an overturned military truck with a dead soldier laying nearby on the ground. In his pocket was a piece of paper detailing information on an attack that some of the opposing soldiers were planning on a nearby town. As soon as we read it, Holly was determined to find a way to let her brother know. She knew that he and his regiment were in the forest just outside the town and so she went there to find them. I went with her, then waited while she went down the sloping hill to where the soldiers were. I didn't know that two enemy soldiers were laying in wait behind the nearby brush.

She did succeed in our self-appointed mission to get the information to her brother, but she was killed by enemy gunfire when she was trying to come back over to where I was waiting at the top of the ravine. I blamed myself for that as well, believing that I should have gone with her. And yet I knew that I really couldn't have. We probably both would have died, leaving Miruko all alone. Maybe she had a feeling that she would die and that was why she had insisted that I didn't follow her. That didn't change my guilt, though.

Her aunt never forgave me for it, either. She was certain it was my fault in some way. So even if I had ever considered asking her to take us in, it would have been completely impossible after that. But that was probably better anyway. I know that Miruko wouldn't have been happy there.

By this time the fighting had gotten so bad that battles went on right in the town. Most people, if they were smart, just stayed in their homes all the time—or in their bomb shelters, if they were rich enough to own them.

Miruko and I had to settle for hiding in the basement, only coming upstairs every now and then when we were sure it was safe. But it had been several months by now since Momma's death, and our supply of food storage was just about gone. It had gotten so bad that now I was forced to ration our food. There was barely enough for the both of us, and after a couple more weeks, that was gone too. We were both starving.

"Alister," Miruko pleaded on the second day without nourishment, "we havta go downtown and find food!" He was curled up on the carpeted floor, his eyes half-open in exhaustion and weariness.

I ran a hand through my hair. "It's not safe there," I reminded him. "There's soldiers all over town. They're probably fighting in front of whatever's left of the store." But I knew my brother was right. We had to get food from somewhere, and no one else had any to spare. Maybe . . . maybe if I went alone and left Miruko here, he would be safe until I could bring something back. . . .

"But I'm hungry," he whispered. I knew that he didn't really comprehend the danger. Right now he could only comprehend that there wasn't any food. "And . . . you're probably hungry too, Alister."

I knew I was, but I played it down, for his sake. "I'm fine," I told him. "Hey, maybe we could check the storage again. Sometimes there's boxes or cans that fall behind the shelves onto the floor." It was sometimes a game that Miruko liked to play, and every now and then we actually found something, but today he didn't feel like it.

"You go check," he said. We had already looked yesterday and hadn't been able to find anything, so he wasn't hopeful.

Getting a flashlight, I crawled on the floor to look behind and under the shelves. At first I couldn't see anything but dust bunnies, but then I thought I saw what looked like a small, flat can up against the wall. It was half-hidden by a dust bunny, and hard to see unless I concentrated and looked closer. The shelves were bolted to the floor, so I couldn't move them out of the way to get it, but I hoped that if I could find a long stick or something like that, I could poke it back there and roll the can out. Sometimes it was really irritating that the bottom shelf had a back to it. If it didn't, I could probably have just reached over the shelf to get the can.

I got up, looking around for something I could use. Finally finding a fire poker, I went back to the shelves and knelt down again. After several tries, I managed to dislodge the can from where it was stuck and it rolled out. It was a can of tuna. I relaxed, feeling triumphant, and carried it out to open it.

Both Miruko and I were starved, but I tried to make sure that he got the most of the tuna. In any case, it only took us a day to finish the entire can. Then we were starving again and I had to concede that we would have to go out looking for food.

I was actually hoping that a friend of Momma's, who lived several miles away, would have some fruit and vegetables from her garden that she could spare for us. But I knew it wasn't likely. I didn't even like to ask, because she had her own children to look out for. Something for Miruko was all that I wanted, but I knew that I needed to stay healthy as well, if I wanted to continue being with him. I did have what would equal several dollars in American money, so I thought that if I could pay for whatever I asked for, then that would be better than simply asking if she could give us something.

I placed the money in my pocket and went to find Miruko, who was sitting in the living room's window seat and looking sad. "Hey," I said softly, coming up by his side, "how would you like to take the bike and go out to Mrs. Crale's?" We had an old bicycle out in the shed that our father had sometimes taken us for rides on, before he had grown bitter. We hadn't used it in ages, but if we were going to make this trip, we would need it.

Miruko perked up. "You mean we can go outside finally?" he chirped. I knew how much he disliked staying in the house all the time, but with all the treacherous goings-on I had decided that we shouldn't go out unless it was absolutely necessary. Not only did bombs go off frequently, but with the soldiers invading, there were often battles in the streets. I hoped that if we took a seldom-used path that led out to the farm country, we would be safe.

I smiled down at him. "If we're careful," I replied.

He leaped down, heading for the door. "Yay!" Before I could catch up to him, he was already outside at the shed and waiting for me to open the padlocked door. After grabbing the key, I quickly followed him.

"I have to unlock it first," I told him with gentle amusement. "You getting here before me won't make it happen any faster."

"Yeah, I know," he grinned, stepping aside to let me use the key. It was obvious that he was just so excited to finally be out of the house again. While I got the bike, he ran around on the lawn nearby, his happy laugh echoing around the area.

The bike was a lot more beat up then I had remembered. The paint was peeling as well, and I discovered that it squeaked, but I solved that problem by quickly oiling it. I had to wonder if it had just gotten in this sorry condition since we had last used it, or if it had always been this way and I had just never noticed before because it had always been something fun and magical when I had been younger.

For a brief moment I allowed myself to again wonder what had happened to our father. He had changed so much in just the course of a few years. . . . Even though once our whole family had been happy and he had enjoyed spending time with us, he later seemed to despise all of us and to not want any of us to be around him. Then, when he went insane, he always thought we were doing treacherous things and that we were his enemies.

I remember Miruko once asking me, during one of our father's rages, if he didn't love us anymore. I didn't know what to tell him then. Now, eight years later, I still don't know the answer.

My brother interrupted my reverie by finding the helmets still hanging from the bike's handlebars. "This one's too small for me now," he announced, setting his old one aside after trying and failing to be able to wear it.

"It sure is," I acknowledged, forcing myself to stop thinking about the past. Dad's helmet was slightly too big for me, but I decided it would have to do. We didn't have any others. I gave my old helmet to Miruko and it seemed to fit him good enough.

I let Miruko get on in front of me, since he was a lot shorter. "Hold on tight!" I instructed. He grinned, gripping the handlebars as we rode off.

The ride to Mrs. Crale's took over an hour riding on the rusty bike, but we eventually made it. As it turned out, she didn't have much to spare, and I didn't want to push for any of it, even though I did have money, but she wanted to help us. She gave us some of her peaches, strawberries, and celery, as well as potatoes, squash, carrots, and even a bit of beef jerky. She didn't want my money when I tried to give it to her. "We have enough food," she reassured me. "Just take whatever you need to keep yourself and your brother alive." All I could do was to thank her and leave. Her kindness and selflessness kept Miruko and I alive for weeks after that while the war raged on around us.

But the possibility of starvation wasn't the only problem we were faced with. Of course we hadn't been able to keep up with the house payments. There was always the possibility that our shelter would be taken away from us, but I had to hope that because of the war, things such as missed payments would be overlooked—and that enemy soldiers wouldn't decide to take up residence there as a base. I had seen them invading homes before, and I doubted that they would leave our house alone just because we were children.

Also, there was the worry of what would happen if word got out to the government that we were orphans. We might be taken away from our home and thrown into a orphanage. We might even be separated. But no—I refused to let that happen. I would run away with Miruko if I had to, but I would not leave him behind. After all this time, however, I doubted that any of that would happen, either. I had seen many orphans wandering around lately, and nothing was done about any of them. It seemed that there was a certain air of indifference growing in the area. Most of those who had cared were either dead, ill, or had moved away. Some were just so disillusioned by what had happened to their country that they had given up in despair and no longer wanted to bother with problems such as orphans.

I was actually fine with that, and from talking to most of the other orphans, they were as well. We didn't want the government interfering in our lives, because we knew it wasn't likely that it would make our situations better. We were struggling to get by as best as we could, and many of us had siblings that we were trying to take care of. None of us wanted them to be taken away from us, as we knew the government was likely to do.

I thought about a lot of these subjects during the long nights when I would be trying to go to sleep and failing. There was so much to think about and so many worries that I hadn't had before, when Momma had been alive. I had to wonder if she had often lain awake as I did then, worrying over how to keep my brother and I safe. She probably had.

One of the orphans I talked with a lot was a tough kid who liked to be called Spike. No one knew what his real name was, but he seemed to know all the best hiding places in the city and often would help other orphans when they needed to get a certain food or herb for someone who was ill. Spike was tough, but he had a good heart, and I'm sure he hid a lot of pain. In some ways he reminds me of Valon. I wonder what Valon would think if I told him that.

Spike showed up on our doorstep once, clutching his stomach. I could see blood seeping through his fingers, and upon asking, was told that he had been stabbed by the person who owned the herb garden that Spike sometimes raided. Miruko was horrified, and I was angry. Spike never used the herbs for himself, but always to help others in the neighborhood. It was true, technically he had been stealing, but he had known that the gardener wouldn't be generous with his herbs and that asking would be futile. Maybe it was also that he was too proud to ask. I wouldn't be surprised. But in any case, what the gardener did to him was uncalled for.

He didn't stay for long, only to get some medical supplies from our first aid kit. I told him that he should stay until he started to heal, but he insisted he was fine and left. I'm certain that Miruko didn't believe he was fine any more than I did.

The next day I went over to the place where I knew he had been staying, which was little more than a vacant warehouse at the edge of town. I found him laying on the floor in a pool of blood, dead. It wasn't really a surprise, but I was sickened by the sight. I found out later that he'd been stabbed with a poisoned knife, and the poison had worked quickly.

I also discovered something else, when I looked around the area in hopes of finding a place to bury him—a small grave marked only with the name "Anna" carved into a wooden cross. I could only guess that he had lost a younger sibling. I had to admit that I couldn't really feel that sorry for Spike after I saw that. I knew that Spike didn't have anyone he really stayed with. He had been all alone. Now he could be with his sister again. I was happy for him.

Miruko asked me later what had happened when I had gone there. I just told him that Spike had gone to be with his family. There wasn't any need to tell him any of the details. He seemed to accept what I told him, though every now and then he would wonder aloud how Spike was doing and if he would ever come back to say hello. I never told him the truth.

The incident when I was shot happened a month or so later, when we ran out of food again. This time, the way to Mrs. Crale's house was blocked off by army vehicles, and I hated having to ask her again for food, so that was how I ended up downtown. I wanted Miruko to stay home while I went to try to find something at whatever was left of the market, but there was bombing going on in the next town over (which wasn't very far away) and he went looking for me. I think he was afraid that maybe something would happen to me and I would die the way Mom did.

I can't imagine how horrible it must have been for him when something did happen to me. He had to watch me being shot down and then laying in the grass, breathing heavily as I clutched the wound. I remember him bending over me, grabbing at my shoulders and screaming . . . pleading for me to stay with him. . . . And I tried . . . I tried so hard to remain conscious, but that was the first time I had ever been seriously hurt and the pain was excruciating.

"Alister! Alister!" I felt tears splashing on my face as Miruko bent over me, sobbing. "Please, you've gotta stay here! You promised you'd stay!" His voice shook as he bent down, hugging me around the neck. He was careful to try avoiding my steadily-bleeding injury, but it still felt as though there was extra pressure on it anyway.

I could barely think clearly. My vision was quickly darkening and I felt as though I was falling into a deep pit, far away from Miruko and my promise. I vaguely remember telling him to find a place where he would be safe, but after that, everything is a blank. The pain overcame me then.

I didn't regain consciousness for hours, or so I was told later on. When I at last did feel my senses returning, I realized that I was laying in a soft bed and that I could hear muffled crying. It didn't take me long to understand that it was Miruko, but what I heard next confused and horrified me.

"There now, don't cry," a vaguely familiar woman's voice told him soothingly. "The doctor managed to get the bullet out, and your brother is doing well. He'll wake up before you know it. You were very brave, staying with him after the accident until the battle died down. If you had tried to run away, with or without him, you probably would have been shot as well."

"No!" Miruko wailed, unable to be consoled. "It's my fault he's hurt. It's all my fault! If I hadn't left the house . . . if I'd just stayed home like he told me to . . . he probably would've come home okay! But I didn't do what he said, and now he's hurt!"

If I had been more aware of things, I would have quickly assured him that he wasn't to blame at all. As it was, I passed back into unconsciousness.

The next time I began to wake up, I was able to remain conscious instead of fainting again. As I opened my eyes, I found that I was in a dimly-lighted room that I didn't recognize. Feeling something warm against my side, I looked down to see Miruko curled up beside me. He looked as though he had cried himself to sleep. I smiled gently at him, reaching carefully to put my arm around him without jarring the wound. Miruko cuddled close, sniffling in his sleep. "Alister," he mumbled.

I gazed down at my chest out of curiosity. I was wearing an open, cotton robe, and I could see the bandage over my injury. There was a bit of blood vaguely showing through the cloth, and I could still feel pain in the general area, but overall it wasn't much of a bother. I just hoped that I'd be well enough soon to get up and move around. I never had been able to get the food for us, and even though the doctor had probably made certain that Miruko had eaten something earlier, I didn't want to impose on him any more than I had to.

My thoughts turned back to the conversation I remembered hearing when I had briefly awakened before. Miruko was blaming himself. . . . It was only natural; I would have blamed myself endlessly if he had been the one to get hurt, but still, I hated seeing him put such a burden on himself. He was too young to have to worry that he was responsible for someone getting injured. It had actually been my own fault. I hadn't seen the bullet coming until it was too late. But . . . I had been trying to shield Miruko anyway, so I imagine that he believed that if I hadn't needed to, I would have been kept from injury.

He stirred, opening his lighter gray eyes slowly as he gazed around the room and at me. When he saw that I was awake, his countenance brightened tenfold and he sat up, wanting to hug me but not wanting to disturb my wound. "Alister! You're awake!" he exclaimed joyously. "The nurse said you'd wake up, but I was still really worried!" I could see glimmers of tears in his eyes, but he seemed to not notice.

I smiled at him as I reached out to ruffle his hair. "Hey, I promised I wouldn't leave you alone," I reminded him, all the while thinking how lucky I was that I hadn't been forced to break that promise.

Miruko grinned, but then became downcast as he recalled the occasion when I had vowed to stay with him. "It was so scary, Alister," he whispered, his voice quavering. "I heard this whistling sound and then you just fell over . . . and blood was going everywhere. . . ." He hiccuped, his eyes displaying how immensely frightened he had been. My heart twisted. "You told me to go somewhere safe, and then you just closed your eyes and didn't wake up! I thought . . . I thought you'd died, just like Momma died!" The tears were running freely down his face by now, but he didn't try to brush them away. "But . . . you said to find a safe place to go, so . . . I stayed there with you. I couldn't leave you! And anyway . . . I couldn't think of any place that would be safer."

I reached out, gently wiping his tears away. "It's okay," I told him softly. "I'm going to get better. But I'm sorry you had to see this happen to me. You shouldn't have had to."

Miruko shook his head. "It shouldn't have happened at all!" he cried. "And it wouldn't have if I'd just stayed home!" He clutched a handful of the quilt, staring down gloomily at it.

"We don't know that," I answered, placing a finger under Miruko's chin and gently tilting it upward so that he was looking at me again. "It probably would have happened anyway. I wasn't watching what was happening close enough."

"But . . . you were trying to help me," Miruko sniffled, grabbing at my wrist with both of his hands.

"Of course," I smiled. "I can't let anything happen to my only little brother, now, can I?" I was trying to be calm and casual about it for his sake, but the truth was that inwardly I was still extremely upset. I knew that Miruko could have very well gotten hurt, and the thought made my blood run cold. What would I do if anything happened to Miruko? He was all I had left . . . and I had promised to protect him. . . . I couldn't let that promise be broken, no matter what happened, and yet I also knew that I couldn't allow myself to die either. All the people I had cared about who had died were people that Miruko cared about too. If I died, he would be all alone. I couldn't imagine how much that would traumatize him.

Miruko shivered, moving close to me again. "I miss Momma," he said softly after a brief silence, "and Holly . . . and even Daddy. . . ." I felt a lump in my throat. As a general, unspoken rule, we hadn't talked much about our father since his funeral so many years ago. "I wish . . . I wish that Daddy hadn't changed so much." He hugged me, making sure to avoid the wound. "He used to be so great, Alister. . . . He'd take us for bike rides . . . and dance with Momma, and he was happy. . . . He was always laughing and making things fun for us. . . ." I heard him sniffle in the near-darkness. "Then he changed . . . and he didn't love us anymore. . . ."

I tried to shift position without hurting myself. "I guess . . . he was dealing with a lot of things that we never knew about," I said finally, but it sounded inadequate and unsatisfying. Even though I knew it was likely the truth, that didn't change the bitterness I felt toward him. No matter what he'd been dealing with, it wasn't an excuse to push his family away as he had.

Miruko looked up at me. "Do you miss him, Alister?" he asked.

I had to think about that carefully before answering. "I miss the old him, the one you were talking about," I told him. "I miss the way he would spend time with us, and how he and Momma would dance to big band music after dinner, and how he would always be reading the newspaper when we would come home from school. . . . But I don't miss the 'newer' him—the one that drank all the time, and beat us, and then went crazy. . . . I don't miss him at all." I really don't consider that man as the one who was our father. As I told Raphael once, Miruko's and my father died long before that.

"Yeah . . . I don't miss him either," Miruko agreed. As I looked down at him in the shadowy light, I could see how sad he looked. I knew that he was probably remembering the times after our father had gone insane, when he would beat us and Momma. After a moment he laid his head on my shoulder. "Alister . . . what happened to Daddy will never happen to anyone else, will it?" he said in a hushed tone, as if afraid that even asking about it would cause it to happen.

I was stunned, but I soon recovered from the shock. It was a legitimate question. Why wouldn't Miruko wonder if it would happen to someone else? Our father had been a good man, but something had happened to him that we knew nothing about. But I was determined that it would never happen to me. "I hope not," I told him seriously, "but if you mean will it happen to me, well . . . I just won't let it."

Miruko bit his lip. "But what if it's something you can't stop?"

A good question. I tried to make my voice more light as I answered. "I'll be able to," I reassured him, "because I'll never forget that I have a younger brother that I care about." And it's strange. I never have forgotten, but I still ended up closing my heart off anyway. From Miruko's death to the end of the Doom organization, I was bitter and hateful. I wonder how many times Miruko tried to get through to me and couldn't because of the way rage blinded and deafened me.

Now my brother grinned, seeming to be at peace. "Good!" he declared. He yawned sleepily and soon was asleep. I stayed awake for some time after that, just pondering, but soon I had dozed off as well.

"Alister! Hey, Alister!"

The redhead was startled back to consciousness as he felt a poke in his arm. Slowly he opened his eyes, trying to leave behind the memories of that evening with Miruko and to grasp the concept of what had been recently happening in the present. Valon was hurt. . . . He was hurt protecting me. . . . The lanky young man was leaning over Valon's hospital bed, resting his head on the edge of the pillow, when he realized that Valon was looking back at him.

Immediately he was entirely awake, pulling himself into an upright position. "Valon?" he exclaimed, feeling somewhat stunned. Was it true that Valon was awake? He had been laying so quiet for so many hours . . . though Alister discovered that he actually did not know how long it had been. It seemed to him that he had been asleep for a long time. But if Valon was awake . . . and poking him . . . then the doctor must have been mistaken when he determined that the boy would have some kind of brain damage. Valon looked to be perfectly well, aside from the fact that he was wounded.

Raphael, who was just coming back into the room after getting a snack from a nearby vending machine, was both immensely relieved and surprised at the sight before him. Valon was grinning widely, though he still looked pale and weak. Alister was watching him with a certain awe and amazement that he was awake, looking as though he himself had just barely woken up. Raphael had not been expecting Valon to come to any time soon, especially after what the doctor had said, and he felt a burden being lifted from his heart as the Australian spoke.

"Hey, you look like you saw a ghost, mate," Valon smirked. "Come on, you didn't really think I was a goner, did you?" He was careful as he moved about, as the wound did still pain him, but at the moment he was feeling quite happy and pleased with himself. He had managed to conquer Darkness's effects and to regain consciousness once again, and he knew that Alister and Raphael had been worrying about him. It was obvious in their eyes that they were immensely encouraged by the fact that he had woken up.

Alister looked at him, managing to regain his composure. "I believed that you were still fighting to stay alive," he replied, allowing himself a slight smile. And that was true, though of course when Alister had been having his breakdown, he had not been thinking clearly enough to know what he believed about what would happen to his friend.

"Yeah? You looked like you were gonna go crazy after I took the shot," Valon said, suddenly serious. Even in his dazed and injured state, Valon had understood what had been happening to his friend, and it had frightened him, to see Alister completely lose control of himself the way he had. Valon had not expected for anything of the sort to happen.

Alister hesitated before responding. "Well . . . I haven't," he said then. "I'm still as sane as I was before." He really had no intention of telling Valon about how distraught he had become after the Australian had fallen unconscious. He did not see any reason why Valon needed to know about that. It would probably only serve to make the Australian feel guilty that he had caused such distress, and Alister did not want that.

"How about you?" Raphael asked, looking down at the brunette boy. "Are you feeling alright?" He shook his head slowly, slightly amused. "The doctor was worried that you might have some kind of brain damage, but it looks like you're normal."

Valon grinned. "Aw, I'm fine," he proclaimed. "Just kinda sore and all, y'know. Nothin' to worry about." He rubbed at his head, then blinked up at his friends. "Why'd the doc think that?" As far as he was concerned, he was fine. But he knew that Alister and Raphael must not be telling him everything. When he had lost consciousness, Alister had looked so haunted. He could not have gone from looking like that to being his normal, aloof self without something else happening in between.

Raphael exchanged a look with Alister before answering. "At one point," he said carefully, "while they were getting the bullet out, your heart stopped. They couldn't bring you back for about fifteen minutes." As he studied Valon now, the meaning of his words came back to him sharply. This boy, this normally cheerful, mischievous boy who made life so interesting for both Raphael and Alister, had been clinically dead. What if they had not been able to revive him? Would Alister have suffered another, more serious breakdown? Even if he had not, how would he and Raphael have gone through life without him? Raphael found that he did not want to dwell on these thoughts.

Valon blinked at him in obvious surprise. "Really?" His wide blue eyes revealed that he had no idea that such a thing had occured.

"Yes," Alister answered, gripping tightly at the railing.

Valon considered this, then simply grinned again in a nonchalant way. "Oh well, I'm back now," he stated. "I guess that's the most important thing, right?"

Alister sighed, shaking his head slowly. He was not concealing his relief very well, as his eyes revealed the truth. "You shouldn't be so reckless," he said quietly. And yet, you wouldn't be you if you weren't. And I would probably be dead. But saying "Thank you" to you, after what you did, just doesn't seem good enough. "Thank you" was never meant to be said after someone saves another's life, nearly dying himself in the process.

Valon cuffed him lightly. "You always are, chum," he pointed out, "when it comes to some kinda life and death situation. You never think about yourself in a case like that. Heck, you're more reckless than I am!" He smirked at Alister's expression, then settled back into the soft pillows and relaxed. He wanted to stretch, but he knew that if he did, that would probably disturb his wound.

Instead he looked up at Raphael. "How long's it been, anyway? You and Alister both look really worn out." That was an understatement. Raphael had not slept at all and there were dark circles under his eyes. Alister had slept, but not much and he had not really been in a comfortable position when he had dozed off. His hair was somewhat ruffled and his shirt was still torn from when he had used part of it to press against Valon's wound. Even though they had gone home at one point to quickly get a change of clothing for Valon so that he would not have to wear a hospital gown, Alister had been in too much of a daze at the time to bother retrieving a different shirt for himself as well.

Raphael glanced at a nearby clock. "Long enough," he growled in reply. Most of the night had passed by now, and the sun would be rising soon. He realized now how tired he himself was. Alister had not wanted to fall asleep earlier, but after telling Raphael so many of the experiences of his childhood, he had become weary with the stress of his breakdown and his worry over Valon. Without quite understanding what he was doing, the redhead had dozed off. It sounded like a good idea to Raphael.

The blonde turned his attention back to the others as Alister spoke again. "You saved my life," he remarked quietly, voicing the thought he had held for the last little while, "and nearly lost your own in the process." The tall man studied Valon with his gray eyes, as if searching for answers.

Valon shrugged, giving off the appearance that it was not a big deal to him—which it probably actually was not. He had simply acted on instinct, knowing that he did not want Alister to be hurt. If a large fuss was made over his actions, he would most likely feel embarrassed. "Well, sure, why not? You're my chum and all." He yawned, shifting position, and then looked down at the quilt. "I kinda didn't want you to die. It'd be dull without you. . . . I mean . . . you're so odd and all. . . ."

Alister grunted. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said, cupping his chin in his hand as he leaned on the railing.

Raphael shook his head slowly. Already they were beginning their usual banter. Valon seemed to be feeling well, though he looked as though he might fall asleep in a moment. Obviously the experience had drained him. Being unconscious had not given him a sufficient rest.

"When I found you, you were actin' pretty strange," Valon declared, eyeing Alister curiously. "You acted like you didn't know where you were!"

Alister hesitated before answering. After what Valon had done for him, the redhead supposed that he deserved an explanation for his behavior. "I didn't," he admitted. "I haven't experienced a situation where multiple people are shooting at each other since I was a child. Something happened to me when I stumbled into that gang war. My mind went back to the time when I was running through the woods with my friend Holly. We were being shot at then . . . and before we could completely escape . . . she was killed." He clenched a fist, hating the memories that he could see in the back of his mind.

Valon gasped in shock. While Raphael had been briefly told about Holly, Valon had known nothing about her. He was stunned at the news that not only had Alister had a friend, he had watched that friend die. "You had a chum, Alister? I . . . I didn't know. . . . I . . . I guess I thought you were such a loner that you only ever had your brother around. You . . . you've just never seemed like the type to make friends." He wondered how many more misconceptions he would find out that he had had about Alister. Though, he supposed the opposite was true as well. He knew that for a long time, Alister had had misconceptions about him. It was only when they had been taken prisoner and forced to work together to escape that some of those misunderstandings had been shattered.

"Yes, well . . . if everyone you held dear—family and friends—died, you might have finally decided to close your heart the way I did," Alister replied flatly. "It's true that I'm not a social person, but I did have a select few people that I cared about, including several friends. They all died. I've often wondered why I was the one to be spared."

Valon swallowed hard, realizing anew just how little he actually did know about Alister's past. And when he recalled their disagreement from earlier, it dawned on him that what Alister had pointed out had been true—Valon had not shared much of his past either, so it was rather hypocritical of him to complain that Alister had not done so. "I'm sorry, mate," he said softly.

Alister laid a hand on Valon's shoulder. "It's not as if you were responsible for any of it," he replied. "You've had a difficult life as well."

Raphael found himself relaxing. It seemed that Valon would be alright, and it also looked as though he and Alister were going to have a peaceful conversation for a while. Since they were so often arguing, any time when they could calmly communicate was a welcomed blessing. He smiled slightly, watching them, and then began to ponder.

For Alister to have finally started to open up more about his past made Raphael happy. He sometimes worried about the younger man and his almost-constant solitude, though Raphael was also patient and knew when to let things be, unlike Valon with his less patient personality. If Alister now felt that he could speak more freely about his childhood when it had been so painful, Raphael hoped that it meant the gray-eyed man was healing more and that he was also feeling that much closer to his friends.

"So," Valon was saying now, "what the heck happened to your shirt?" He eyed the tear curiously. "I mean, isn't it short enough already?"

Alister raised an eyebrow at him before answering. "You were bleeding," he said flatly. "I had to use something to try to make it stop." He felt relaxed himself, much to his surprise. But now that he knew Valon was going to be alright, it seemed to be easier to actually be at peace. The memories of his past still pained him, but his breakdown had passed.

"Yeah?" Valon blinked at him.

Alister nodded. "If I hadn't, you might have bled to death. As it was, you did lose a lot of blood." He leaned back in the chair, watching his younger friend. "But . . . having you die wasn't an option." He crossed his arms, giving Valon a completely serious look. "I'm not about to watch someone else die right in front of me. I'm tired of that."

Valon placed his arms behind his head. "Well, we both agree on that then," he grinned. "I wasn't about to kick the bucket. Heck, I've got a lot of good years left."

"If you don't get too reckless on your motorcycle," Raphael interjected.

"Hey, I'm careful!" Valon shot back.

"I guess that's why you almost collided with that truck the other day," Alister said ironically.

"It's not my fault it whipped around the corner like it did!" Valon snapped, though he was not actually upset. He found that he was actually enjoying himself. It looks like I finally did somethin' worthwhile, he thought as he leaned back into the pillows. I saved Alister's life . . . and I'm glad of it, too. He doesn't wanna die . . . and I guess I don't want him to, either. Crazy fella. I guess we're all crazy . . . carin' about each other and all. It feels good, though. . . . I finally belong somewhere. We all do.

Anita, who was passing by the partially-open door, glanced in and smiled. She was glad to see that those three were alright. They had been at the medical center before, and though they acted gruff at times, it was always obvious to her that they shared a special bond. She hoped that she would never have to discover what would happen if one of them actually did die, for what happened to one happened to all.

Valon was allowed to go home that night, provided that he rested and did not try to do anything strenuous. After almost losing him the previous day, Alister and Raphael were determined to make certain that he actually did rest. The fact that Valon actually cooperated made his friends wonder if he had actually been hurt a lot worse than he tried to make them believe. Or maybe he simply did not want to end up having to stay at the hospital longer.

Liu was very happy to see them all, of course. She rubbed against them in bliss and settled onto the couch with Valon. He shook his head, amused, and petted her. Though in general he did not like animals that much (mostly due to the fact that the ones he had encountered as a child had been vicious), Liu was an exception. She was friendly and docile and enjoyed the company of people, which was unlike the animals he had seen before.

The trio talked for a while that night, though Alister was still basically quiet. He had told the others some details about his past, but he was still the same aloof young man that he had always been. He soon decided that he had said enough, much to Valon's vexation. There were still many things that Alister had not revealed, and he preferred it that way. He did not feel that he had to share everything about himself in order to be completely honest with his friends. They kept their secrets, as well.

Valon yawned, stretching out on the couch and hugging the throw pillow. "He never changes," the Australian muttered, positioning the pillow near his wound. He found that the softness soothed the injury somewhat, and he began to further relax.

Raphael shook his head. "Well, he had to have changed quite a bit, or he wouldn't have started to trust us," he pointed out after Alister had wandered into the kitchen. "When we first met, he wouldn't open up at all to either of us."

Valon grinned. "That's true enough, I guess." He looked up at the ceiling. "He's an okay bloke, even though he is pretty weird sometimes."

Raphael sighed. Some things never changed, he supposed. But despite the fact that Alister and Valon could not often get along or understand each other, they were willing to sacrifice for each other, as Raphael was also willing to do for either of them.

Alister glanced out the window idly as he slowly took a drink from his bottle of water. Things have already started to go back to normal, he mused silently, having overheard the others' conversation. But that's fine with me. I'm glad Valon is recovering. It was foolish . . . to try to save my life. And yet . . . I'm grateful to him. He cares about me enough that apparently he's willing to risk losing his life to save mine. There's not many people alive who would do that for another.

I'm glad that my original impressions of Valon—that he's a selfish kid who only cares about making himself stronger—were false. I discovered that truth a while back, but it was confirmed all the more yesterday.

And Raphael, too. . . . He's been a patient friend to both of us, even though it must get frustrating when we're arguing so much. Sometimes I wonder how he can stand to live in the same house with us.

He stared out at the lamps that were coming on all along the street. I've seen so much heartache and death, and it still hurts at times, to reflect on the past. I still blame myself for my brother being killed. But I'm truly happy here with Raphael and Valon. When we first met in the Doom organization, I never could have imagined how close we would all become. I assumed that they would just be my associates and that we would all part ways before long. And we did go our separate ways for a while, but none of us were satisfied with that.

I believe that it's been worth it—opening my heart again, I mean. I don't have to be alone in life. I have a family. I may not expressly say so in words, nor do they, but we look out for and care about each other. That's what's important.

Thoughtfully he turned and went back into the living room.